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Homemade Pretzels & Beer Cheese

Have you ever wondered what quark is? Has it kept you up at night, tossing and turning with its Star Trek sounding name? Well, it's been a burning question in my mind for a while now and I decided to scratch that itch when I was at Mount Royal grocery store last week. I knew that quark was cheese and I knew I needed some for a beer cheese recipe from my new favorite cookbook, The Art of Living According to Joe Beef, so I put in the cart— right next to the Taleggio, Fromager d'Affinois and English cheddar. Joe Beef is a restaurant in Montreal that I really, really want to visit someday and when Anthony Bourdain interviewed the two men behind Joe Beef, Frederic Morin and David McMillan, on his show featuring Montreal— the deal was sealed, they are my kind of people. I was hooked from the minute they seared a lobe of foie gras on the wood stove in their ice fishing shack— I have a thing for hedonists, what can I say?

Back to the quark. According to the LA Times, 'quark is just the German word for "curds." A creamy, fresh cheese, quark's curds come together to form something magical — rich with a gentle tang, it's spreadable, kind of a cross between sour cream and soft ricotta cheese. Variations of the cheese can be found throughout Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.' It's also easy to make and it's on my list of things to try when it's not 80 degrees and unbelievably humid (recipe here).

The Joe Beef beer cheese was a snap to put together and tasted fresh and a little garlicky with just a hint of beer. I didn't have any Styrofoam cups or cheese molds and substituted a large-ish fine mesh strainer lined with coffee filters. It worked out okay but since the interior of the cheese is kind of runny, the presentation would be much prettier in a smaller container. I'm definitely putting this cheese in the appetizer rotation in my kitchen— it's perfect with pretzels, Ritz crackers or celery sticks (if you are trying to tone down your inner Hedonist).

Beer Cheese(from The Art of Living According to Joe Beef)

4.5 ounces quark cheese
4.5 ounces cream cheese
3.5 ounces blue cheese
1/2 cup pilsner beer
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 clove garlic, finely minced (don't be tempted to add more than a half of a clove, you don't want the garlic to overwhelm the beer notes)
Hefty pinch of paprika
4 (4 ounce) cheese molds with holes or four Styrofoam cups with holes poked in the sides and bottom
4 paper coffee filters to make the cheese

Preparation
Leave the cheeses at room temperature for about one hour. In a small pot, warm the beer over medium heat and then remove from the heat.

In a food processor, combine the cheeses, beer, garlic, salt, pepper and paprika and process until smooth.

If you are using Styrofoam cups, use a hot nail or a small pointed knife to poke holes in each cup, spacing them every square inch. You should have about 30 holes per cup. Dampen the coffee filters and line each perforated cup or cheese mold with a filter.

Divide the cheese mixture into 4 equal portions and put a portion in each lined cup. Put the cups on a rimmed plate, cover and refrigerate overnight. When you are ready to serve them, unmold each cheese and place on a plate. You can keep the cheese, covered, in the refrigerator for about one week.

Now that I had the beer cheese/quark question answered, it was on to the next burning question— how do you make soft pretzels? The kids love pretzels but I had heard tales of boiling the uncooked, twisted pieces of dough prior to baking and decided that was definitely not for me— until Sadie asked if we could try to make some on Sunday. Since I needed a beer cheese delivery vehicle, we decided to try out our pretzel making skills. As it turns out, Sadie is way better at knotting the pretzel dough into the perfect shape than I am—my pretzels looked a little chubby and squat next to her lithe and graceful masterpieces. Regardless, they tasted great and were the perfect accompaniment to the beer cheese. Pretzels and beer cheese— a match made in beer garden heaven.

Homemade Pretzels (from cdkitchen.com and Auntie Anne's)

1 1/2 cup warm water
1 1/8 teaspoon active dry yeast
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup bread flour
3 cups regular flour
2 cups warm water
2 tablespoons baking soda
Coarse salt, to taste
4 tablespoons butter (melted)

Preparation
Sprinkle yeast on lukewarm water in mixing bowl; stir to dissolve. Add sugar, salt and stir to dissolve; add flour and knead dough until smooth and elastic. Let rise at least 1/2 hour.

While dough is rising, prepare a baking soda water bath with 2 cups warm water and 2 Tbsp baking soda. Be certain to stir often. After dough has risen, pinch off bits of dough and roll into a long rope* (about 1/2 inch or less thick) and shape. Dip pretzel in soda solution and place on greased baking sheet. Allow pretzels to rise again. Bake in 450 degrees F oven for about 10 minutes or until golden. Brush with melted butter, sprinkle with salt and enjoy.